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RWJF officials visit Klamath Falls

Jennifer Little, far right, guides other locals and out-of-town visitors on a tour of Downtown Klamath Falls during a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize site visit Wednesday, May 2.

It started with hard work and high hopes as a top-10 finalist in May. Now, Klamath County is officially a winner of the nationally renowned Robert Wood Johnson Culture of Health Prize.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation officially announced Tuesday that the county was one of four to receive the prize in the U.S. This comes after several site visits from other areas and more than 200 applicants nationwide. Staff and volunteers from the Healthy Klamath Initiative, Klamath County Public Health, Blue Zones Project and others first worked on their own application last winter and spring.

Klamath County’s specific efforts factor in attempts to increase high school graduation rates, increased access to produce and an overall effort to improve “community health and safety.”

Other winners include San Antonio, Cicero, Ill. and Eatonville, Fla.

At least six county and public health officials are set to visit with the RWJ Foundation in Princeton, N.J., in October, where they will learn more about other community incentives aside from a $25,000 community health grant.

Erin Schulten, health promotion disease prevention program administrator, and Robyn Pfeifer, health promotion program coordinator, spoke with the Herald & News in a phone interview Monday to outline the next steps. Both were instrumental in joining several others who helped submit a collective community application, prepare a video and set up for May’s site visit.

“The biggest thing about the prize is the recognition,” Pfeifer said. “Klamath County is now on the map.”

Bringing it together

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation often looks at everyday examples of ways towns and communities look to enhance their environments, according to previous reports. More specifically, health officials in prize-winning communities are first asked to define health in the broadest terms possible as they continue to bring others to the table.

The Klamath Falls tour in May began at the Sky Lakes Wellness Center in downtown Klamath Falls and also featured stops at Blue Zones Project offices, the Mills Addition neighborhood and Sherm’s Thunderbird Market.

The evaluation process identifies where communities work to improve health, decrease poverty and add on affordable housing, in addition to other gaps that need to be met.

On Monday, Pfeifer and Schulten revisited the concept of the prize award representing work “in all sectors of the community.”

“It’s a community thing,” Pfeifer said. “It’s for the community — it’s not for one organization or the other.”

“We are actually doing all this great, innovative work to address these health issues,” Schulten added.

Other county officials and those involved with the Healthy Klamath Initiative plan to meet following the New Jersey trip so they can further outline the next steps in how and where to best use the $25,000 prize. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation does not set strict guidelines in terms of what kind of initiatives the money can go toward.

Additional learning

Pfeifer and Schulten described it as a significant “self-esteem” win for the community, also touching on how it can take years to change county health rankings and standings, but that the recognition of progress is a great start.

“It’s an outside source saying ‘hey, you’re doing the right thing to improve the health of your community,’ Schulten said. “It takes so many years to see the results of that type of work anyway.”

Klamath County wrapped up this year in No. 35 out of 36 overall in state comprehensive health rankings, up one rank from the previous year. Other public health officials in previous reports also clarified that actual results could take years to offset. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is also in charge of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps that release each spring.

Another large step in the process is for public health and county officials to further ask questions on what other communities gained from the prize recognition and prize money and how they improved their own environments.

Schulten said this would be addressed during their stop in New Jersey, where they’ll have an opportunity to open up to past prize winners.